Most Sunday starters in the Southeastern Conference are simply trying to keep their teams in the game. The good ones are the ones who can go out and win a series.
Ma’Khail Hilliard, for at least one weekend, fit into the latter category.
Hilliard shook off a rocky start to deliver six strong innings of two-run ball in his SEC debut and LSU scored three times in the sixth inning to cease control of the the rubber match. Things got a bit chaotic in the ninth, but LSU ultimately held on to beat Missouri 7-5 at Alex Box Stadium on Sunday afternoon.
“I don’t think anything is going to come easy for this team, but that was a hard-fought victory,” LSU coach Paul Mainieri said. “For Ma’Khail Hilliard to have some adversity in the first inning and then throw five shutout innings, and really dominate them, that just shows what a winner he is.”
Zach Watson provided the spark for LSU with three hits, two runs scored and a pair of RBI. Mainieri revealed that the center fielder had been dealing with back spasms as recently as Thursday, but was able to play all weekend thanks to an aggressive course of treatment from LSU trainer Cory Couture.
“It was sore Friday and Saturday, but I tried to not let it affect me,” Watson said. “I tried not to think about it and play the best baseball I could. It feels 100 percent today.”
Neither side was hurting for baserunners, but LSU managed to come up with some clutch hits while Hilliard routinely worked in and out of trouble. Antoine Duplantis chipped in with two RBI of his own.
Hilliard recorded only one clean inning, but picked up a career-high six strikeouts and effectively scattered six hits and a walk in a quality start so LSU (14-7, 2-1 SEC) could begin league play with series victory at home.
Missouri (15-5, 1-2 SEC) started fast after an hour-long rain delay, scoring twice on three singles against Hilliard. The runs ended the freshman’s scoreless-innings streak at 17.2, but he was brilliant from that point on.
LSU scored a run in each of the first three innings to pull ahead. Watson, who singled and scored in the first, tied the game with a two-out single in the second. Hunter Feduccia gave LSU the lead with an RBI single in the third.
“First inning, when another team scores, that’s the toughest to me,” Watson said. “You have to answer back to it. You’ve got to put a couple hits together to get that momentum.”
Pitching reigned in the middle innings, but LSU broke through with successive RBI singles from Hal Hughes, Watson and Brandt Broussard to provide insurance.
Midweek starter AJ Labas came on in the seventh inning and worked around a two-out single in the first relief appearance of his career. Nick Bush, who seems to have settled in as LSU’s setup man, worked a clean eighth. LSU tacked on an insurance run when Broussard scored from second base on an infield since in the eighth.
Turns out LSU would need that run. An error began a rocky ninth inning, and Austin Bain served up a three-run homer to Kameron Misner, but the senior reliever rebounded to get the final outs.
“The true test of a closer is to get the last out before they tie or take the lead,” Mainieri said. “It doesn’t really matter how pretty it is.”
LSU will be back in action on Wednesday night when Tulane comes to visit. The Tigers will look to snap a four-game losing streak against their in-state foe before hitting the road for a three-game series against Vanderbilt.